Data-Driven Solutions – Take Back America Application

Visionist Inc. accepting an award at the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon

Visionist Inc. at the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon

This is a guest blog from Visionist Inc., a winning team from the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon

91 people die each day from an opioid overdose in the United States. More than half of those who abuse prescription medication obtained their last dosage from a friend or family member (1).

Combating opioid abuse starts with effective prevention. Drug take-back centers are a vital part of a comprehensive prevention strategy at the community level, aimed at eliminating addiction by removing the source. These centers offer a safe and effective outlet for disposing of excess prescription opioids so they cannot be misused or abused. But the question remains: are take-back centers located in areas where they are most needed?

In an effort to develop novel and innovative solutions to this, and other related questions, the Department of Health & Human Services hosted a 24-hour Opioid Code-a-Thon on December 6th-7th, 2017. The event drew over 50 teams and more than 300 experts in software, data science, public health, and research. Teams were challenged to rapidly develop innovative solutions to combat the opioid crisis by leveraging data sets compiled and released by HHS. The Visionist team of three data scientists and one software engineer created Take-Back America, the winning entry in the competition’s “prevention” track.

Take-Back America provides every visitor instant answers to critical questions such as:

  • Where are take back centers located in my community?
  • How effectively have take-back centers been positioned around my community in response to our risk of opioid abuse?
  • What communities have a significant opioid risk?
  • Where do significant coverage gaps in take-back centers exist?

Visionist’s strategy for addressing the challenge was to deploy a team comprised of diverse skill sets to crunch through raw data provided by HHS while augmenting that data with information they obtained from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other public agencies. Leveraging this data, Visionist derived county-level risk statistics for opioid abuse and its correlation to the availability of take-back centers. These efforts converged in the form of a user-centric tool that was rapidly iterated upon to create a functional end-product.

While the competitors only had 24 hours to complete their work, the Visionist team was able to accomplish much in that time. Visionist’s Take-Back America is anticipated to have a profound impact on opioid prevention in its current form, and they are working to make it better! Since the hackathon concluded, Visionist has refreshed the data in their model to provide the most up-to-date take-back locations and county risk statistics. Moving forward, they will iteratively add new features for users with the highest priority items including Google Street View functionality for all take-back sites as well as the implementation of a prescriptive model to help public health practitioners and community organizers identify and evaluate potential locations for new take-back centers.

Visionist and HHS look forward to continuing the conversation about how data can affect real change in the battle against opioid addiction and throughout the healthcare community at the 2018 Health Datapalooza on April 26th and 27th at the Washington Hilton in Washington D.C.  Please come to the HHS booth in the Exhibit Hall and meet Taylor and Kelsey, members of Visionist’s award winning team. If you are unable to attend the conference, Visionist would still welcome the opportunity to speak with you. Get in touch with them on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or via email ( today!

(1) 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Leveraging the Power of the Crowd in Research and Data Analysis

By Katrina Theisz, Program Analyst, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

This year at Health Datapalooza 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has put together a panel highlighting the impact of biomedical crowdsourcing on the scientific community. Featuring talks from Jennifer Couch (National Institutes of Health),  Sandeep Patel (HHS IDEA Lab) Stephanie Devaney (National Institutes of Health), Pietro Michelucci (Human Computation Institute), and Matt Biggerstaff (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), we’ll delve into the different ways engaging the public in scientific research can complement traditional research methods while moving the field forward.

By engaging with people who may not normally participate in scientific endeavors you can gain insight and creative solutions you may not be able to through standard scientific approaches. Citizen Science is an example of a collaborative approach to research involving the public, not just as subjects of or advisors to the research, but as direct collaborators and partners. People know their own lives, their health, their communities, and by working in partnership with them, researchers stand to gain so much. The word partnership is of importance here; that, depending on the project, the questions being asked, and how the study is performed, much of this work starts at the individual or community level.

At its heart, true citizen science is bottom-up, not top-down.Graph that says create, collaborate, connect

Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, tends to start with researchers and filter down, typically in one of two ways: 1. voluntary participation or contributions solicited from unknown individuals (aka “the crowd,” be they experts or not); and 2. opening a line of scientific inquiry to a group of experts (typically achieved through prizes and challenges). People are motivated to help science for a variety of reasons- some because the research may directly impact their lives, others simply because they like science. Sometimes adding a game-like or competitive component to the project is enough to draw people to it.  An added bonus of tapping into the power of the crowd is gaining access to insights you don’t expect. (for example, in Galaxy Zoo, participants sort through satellite imagery to identify different classes of galaxies- side note: by giving participants a forum to share their thoughts and converse with each other, citizen scientists realized they had found an entirely new kind of galaxy.)

But it’s not without its hurdles. Biomedical citizen science and crowdsourcing come packaged with issues that don’t commonly plague other types of projects that engage the public in scientific research. When it comes to sharing personal health data, for instance, there are data privacy and security issues that you won’t find in astronomy citizen science projects. Therefore, trust and transparency are key to the success of any such project, starting at the beginning. It starts with consent- consent that is easy to understand, no law degree needed, no lengthy fine print. What data do the project leaders need? What will it be used for? Who can access it? Addressing those questions clearly up front (and sticking to them) is a great way to avoid issues later. Want to reuse those data later for a different project? Great! Re-consent your participants. Concerned that not everyone in your study is comfortable with the language being used? Consistent iconography can help. We’re an increasingly visual society, and utilizing familiar icons and images can help to clearly convey content without resorting to wordiness.

And then there are the never-ending questions about data quality. How can traditional researchers ensure that donated data are accurate? What kinds of quality control methods work best? Available data suggest that the crowd is as accurate as (and sometimes more accurate than) individual experts, something that has been demonstrated time and time again. Additionally, humans are quite adept at making inferences, visual perception, and abstract thought, which, when paired with computers, can help to train algorithms to recognize certain objects or patterns.

On Friday, April 27th at Health Datapalooza 2018 we will delve into these concepts and much more. For more information on the conference please go to:

Editor’s Note: You can register for the Health Datapalooza here. HHS is a sponsor of the conference.

Technology and Community Join Forces to Increase Naloxone Distribution

By the Minus O Team

This is a guest blog post from a team that participated in the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon.

There’s no denying we’re in the midst of a national crisis that’s affecting every American community regardless of color, income, education, employment status or age. Every day approximately 175 people die of an opioid-related overdose. Every day. Given the incredible damage being ravaged upon our neighborhoods, families, schools and workplaces, the National Opioid Action Coalition (NOAC), and one of its corporate members, Lowekey, have committed to leveraging technology to make a positive impact on this national epidemic. By leveraging the power of mobile technology, the resources of partner and government organizations, and individuals in the community, this team is working to expand the availability of naloxone, the life-saving opioid overdose antidote.

Photo of coders working at the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon

The Minus O team working at the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon

What is it?

Last year’s HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon, gave our team a look into the many rich data assets at HHS and showed the public and the Department what innovative solutions can be developed when the public and the private sector come together. One of those ideas came in the form of our mobile app Minus O.

Minus O is a mobile app that has three main purposes as it relates to the opioid crisis; expanding accessibility and distribution of naloxone, connecting people who may be abusing opioids with treatment resources, and collecting and analyzing data to aid health organizations and first responders in learning more about the epidemic’s impact in specific areas. The app is designed and developed by the team at New York based mobile design firm Lowekey ( led by CEO Gregory Lowe II.

“The effect Opioid overdoses have had on my home state of Ohio has been devastating, at Lowekey we felt it was our calling to leverage mobile technology to do something about it,” said Mr. Lowe.

The app, along with support from pharmaceutical and corporate partners, allows lay-persons to register as “responders,” allowing them to receive and carry a free dose of naloxone. Additionally, friends and family members of an individual who may be abusing opioids are able to download the app (anonymously) and use it’s pulsating “SOS” beacon to request assistance from a “responder” should they need naloxone in a rescue situation. Through the app and corporate funding of supply, Minus O creates a “justice league” for opioid overdose victims.

Designing the app

There are two user-scenarios for the app – “responders,” represented with a gradient blue-green color and “requestors,” identified with a gradient red. The color selection is intentional, with the responder colors symbolizing stability and trust and the requestor interface signaling urgency and caution. This color scheme is consistent throughout the app making it easy for users to know what type of action is happening – especially important in a medical emergency situation.

With any design project offering a solution, there are 5 steps that are adopted during development; empathy/understanding the problem, research, wireframes, visual design, and testing. The most important phase in designing Minus O was the research phase where the Lowekey team had to adopt the concept of “user centered design,” keeping in the forefront the user’s state of mind when interacting with this particular app.

The team spent half of the research phase brainstorming concepts, and in the process came to understand the opioid epidemic more deeply. They worked with a fellow NOAC member, Brenda Zane, who provided first-person experience after her son suffered two Fentanyl overdoses and was rescued both times with Narcan. Her “ground level” insights and understanding of the user environment provided the team with actionable steps that could be built into the design.

“We used the Logo as a starting point for the overall look and feel of the app,” said lead designer Alaere Jituboh. We aimed to create a logo that portrayed the help we wanted to offer – more so become a “beacon” of hope in the midst of a devastating crisis. The concept explores symbolism and the psychology of color. The logo is comprised of a simple sans-serif font and a stylized “O” made up of two orange rings and a white dash in the center – orange combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow, which often is associated with the feeling of encouragement and stimulation, and white being a ray of light and hope.

Connecting to resources

With the initial goal of extending the availability of naloxone accomplished, the team wanted to ensure that users would also have immediate access to treatment and other crisis resources though the app. Lowekey and Zane will be working at a regional level to implement links and access to both state and private resources which will be geo-targeted to the user’s location. This allows those individuals surrounding an overdose victim to actively seek help at the time when it’s most critical – the 24-48 hours post-overdose when opioid users are at higher risk for relapse and additional overdoses.

Piloting the program

In partnership with Ms. Zane and Cole & Weber, a WPP agency in Seattle, the NOAC team and Lowekey are preparing for mid-year (2018) pilot launch in three high-need counties in Washington State. They are in the final stages of securing naloxone funding and distribution and creating a media-backed awareness campaign to expand the program’s footprint and gain widespread adoption. The goal is to reach a 1% saturation rate of responders in these counties in order to collect the necessary and actionable data to further curb the rate of opioid overdose deaths. Once baseline data and results are collected the team will expand the program to other high-need areas across the country.

For additional information please contact:

Gregory Lowe

Brenda Zane  206.261.8119

Connecting Data for better insights at the Health Datapalooza

Series of post-it notes

Photo taken during an Office of the CTO brainstorm session

By Bruce Greenstein, HHS Chief Technology Officer and Mona Siddiqui, Chief Data Officer

In 2010, a small group of individuals from HHS and the public sector, tech industry, and healthcare systems gathered with a single question in mind: What data is required to understand and improve health outcomes? How do we share it internally and externally? This first meeting of the public and private sector to identify ways that data can be used to improve health outcomes led to an annual conference called the Health Datapalooza.

The 9th annual Health Datapalooza returns on April 26-27, 2018 in Washington, DC with the same spirit for innovation, bias towards action, and focus on outcomes.

Health Datapalooza is the conference that brings together federal policymakers, health startups, and health system leaders for actionable conversations on how data can be used to improve health and healthcare.

Since, 2010, the HHS Office of the CTO has led the charge for Open Data and has released more than 1,500 data sets on HealthData.Gov. The Open Data movement continues to be a focus of the Department and the Office of the CTO is committed to fostering the use of data for social good. Now, we turn our focus to examining how HHS is using its own data assets to make more evidence-based policy decisions and to develop data-driven solutions for complex problems.

Last year’s HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon, gave our team a look into the many rich data assets at HHS and showed the public and the Department what innovative solutions can be developed when the public and the private sector come together.

We are coming to Health Datapalooza this year looking for ideas: What would you like to see improved on How can we meaningfully engage with researchers and entrepreneurs to understand what is needed and important on How do we balance data quality with data availability and timeliness at HHS?

Health Datapalooza is the perfect venue to listen to your ideas and share our plans for the future.

As we continue to advocate for Open Data, we are also focusing on how data is used internally at HHS through the Data Insights Initiative. Our vision is an HHS where data are shared, connected, and analyzed in responsible ways to improve how HHS delivers on its mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. We are working with HHS data stewards and open data stakeholders to better understand how we can intelligently use HHS data assets to make evidence-based policy decisions.

Responsible and accountable use of data are topics that are pervasive in our daily discourse. How do other large organizations create responsible, transparent, and accountable processes for data sharing? How can data be connected for real time actionable impact? These are tough but timely issues that require a diverse set of perspectives and a continued commitment from all stakeholders.

Photo of a woman with a flyer

Testing patient education materials with 2017 Health Datapalooza attendees

Along with the HHS CTO, this year at Health Datapalooza you’ll hear from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the CMS Administrator, FDA Commissioner, the National Coordinator for Health IT and other public and private sector healthcare leaders. Breakout sessions will cover everything from public health surveillance, citizen science and crowdsourcing, machine learning and more.

Whether you are a patient, a provider, or a health data enthusiast, the opportunity to share knowledge across sectors and to see how health data is playing a central role in advancing meaningful solutions is an unparalleled opportunity at the Health Datapalooza. Working alongside startups and industry to solve complex problems is a cornerstone and key principle of the Office of the CTO. We don’t have all the answers, but together we can start to connect data to drive change.

We’re attending the Health Datapalooza in order to collaborate and build partnerships as we search for answers to the above questions. The Office of the CTO is committed to being a leader in promoting the use of data for better decisions and to drive change. We look forward to seeing you there and continuing this conversation.

Editor’s Note: You can register for the Health Datapalooza here. HHS is a sponsor of the conference.

Increasing the Value of Data by Cutting Clutter and Duplication

This is a cross-post from

By Bruce Greenstein, HHS Chief Technology Officer; Mona Siddiqui, HHS Chief Data Officer; and Kate Appel, Operations Lead for launched in 2011 with 30 datasets and as of 2017, there were more than 1,900 data sets available. We are proud of HHS’ commitment to continuously and responsibly release publicly-funded data.

How we measure success of should not be merely a reflection of the number of data sets published. Rather, the data available to the public needs to be discoverable, usable, timely, and high-quality.

Within HHS, we are also committed to making sure data is actionable and can inform decision-making across the Department. The Office of the CTO is leading an effort called the Data Insights Initiative to unlock, share and connect data in responsible ways to improve how HHS delivers on its mission.

Members of the Office of the CTO team have also traveled around the country meeting with, and listening to, members of our community and asked – how can we make more usable and deliver more value?

We listened and today, we are updating the technical platform of to reduce clutter and duplication. While this will result in fewer data sets in total, we believe that this will increase the overall quality and usability of the Department’s premier open data website. During this update, we will also make updates to maintain website security, which is an upmost priority to us.

We remain open to feedback, and we’d like to hear from our users – please send in comments and feedback to

What datasets are affected

A quick note about where the data is sourced: the data presented to you on is often first shared by one of our partner government organizations at the federal and state levels. Our partners provide data on an open portal and that data is brought together on for your convenience and discovery.

The updated version of the website will scan data and will be pickier about the data that shows up when you search on In essence, the update will make sure that fewer data will show up on if there is a broken link to the data.

During this update, data sets were removed under the following criteria:

  • The data set was a duplicate data entry; More than one instance of a data set exists on
  • The data feed of a partner organization was changed, moved, removed, or otherwise was not discoverable after outreach to that organization. The data entry had a broken or empty link.

As with any change to the site, we’d like to hear from our users – you can reach us at

Data Analyst Exchange Program aims to share data management and analysis lessons learned from across the globe

Photo of the Data Analyst Exchange Program participants

Photo of the Data Analyst Exchange Program participants

At the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), we believe encouraging collaboration between agencies within and outside of HHS can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our shared efforts. Using data to make informed, evidence-based policy decisions about health and human services is an important function of the Department. However, it is challenging to collaborate and share health and human service data across agencies due to siloed systems, the inability to combine and link de-identified data, and complex data sharing agreements. Other countries face similar and unique challenges and opportunities to sharing and using health and human service data.

“We started The Data Analyst Exchange Program to promote collaboration, address shared challenges, and share best practices between expert analysts in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK),” said HHS Chief Technology Officer, Bruce Greenstein. “Learning from other countries will help us liberate siloed data systems, collaborate across agencies, and better understand how to use the data gathered to improve the health of the US and the UK.” The program launched with a week-long onsite visit from six analysts and two executives from NHS Digital, the national information and technology partner to the health and social care system of the UK.


The visiting team included:

  • Tom Denwood: Executive Director of Data, Insights and Statistics, NHS Digital
  • Lisa Franklin: Director of Information and Technology, Southern Health Foundation Trust
  • Simone Chung: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Chris Dew: Information Analysis Lead Manager, NHS Digital
  • Wilma Harvey-Reid: Senior Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Emily Michelmore: Graduate Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Thomas Poupart: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Helen Richards: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital


The delegation from the UK attended meetings with leaders and analysts from agencies across HHS, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and the National Center for Health Statistics. The aim of the meetings was to to share challenges, lessons learned, and best practices between efforts in the US and the UK to monitor and promote health. Specifically, this inaugural visit focused on efforts by the US and UK to address the opioid crisis and control antimicrobial resistance.

One week wasn’t enough to solve the enormous issues of the opioid crisis and antimicrobial resistance control, but the team of analysts made progress on brainstorming solutions to support these efforts. Using data from the HHS Opioid Symposium & Code-a-Thon, the UK data analysts made recommendations to build opioid overdose risk stratification tools, which could be integrated as decision-support modules in electronic health records, or used at the population-level to identify at-risk patient cohorts. Additionally, the team recommended mapping disease pathways for opioid overdose, making a directory of opioid addiction services publicly available for at-risk individuals, and creating new services that focus on all elements of a person’s life – health, home, purpose, and community – tailored to individuals at-risk of opioid overdose. To address antimicrobial resistance monitoring and control, the UK data analysts recommended investigating real-time patient tracking tools using patient identification bracelets, and monitoring of prescribed medications using a medication optimization dashboard, which can allow organizations to understand variations in local practice and provoke discussions about the appropriateness of local care.

The analysts also identified other opportunities for comparison and collaboration. Both governments in the US and the UK have challenges sharing data, combining data, and collaborating across agencies, due to complex data sharing agreements and data privacy restrictions. Analysts from the US and the UK exchanged local data sharing agreements to start strategizing ways to mitigate the complexity of data sharing and collaboration across agencies in the US and abroad.

Reflecting on the visit Tom Denwood, Executive Director of Data, Insights and Statistics, at NHS Digital said, “This was a great week exchanging information and ideas with US colleagues. This inaugural Data Analyst Exchange visit has been a great opportunity to contribute, and innovate, and ultimately enable analysts in both countries to help move each data business forward to meet the needs of the citizens we both serve”.

Continuing and expanding international collaboration will improve our ability to maintain and improve the health of our populations. A group of US and UK analysts will start meeting regularly in a Data Analyst Exchange International Working group to continue to collaborate and share best practices. This group will start by producing a final report of recommendations and next steps from the Data Analyst Exchange visit.

New Yale Student-Led Innovation Hub Wins Treatment Track at National HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon to Address Opioid Crisis

Matthew Erlendson and his teammates could scarcely believe what they were hearing. On stage, the Chief Data Officer of the Department of Health and Human Services had just announced that Origami Innovations, was one of three winners at a code-a-thon focused on finding data-driven solutions to address the national opioid crisis.

The judges unanimously selected the team from the new Yale student-led innovation hub as one of three winners among more than 50 entrants, including teams from established tech powerhouses like IBM. Erlendson, a fourth-year medical student at Yale University, had co-founded Origami Innovations just a year earlier. His teammates included Jack Cackler, a developer and data scientist at Palantir, Sachith Gullapalli, a software developer at Google and recent Yale alum, Dr. Frank Lee, a pain physician and Johns Hopkins professor, and Dara Rouholiman, a chemist, researcher and data scientist based at Stanford.Origami Innovations team photo

Over the course of the 24-hour code-a-thon, the team had developed a real-time predictive tool to help local hospitals, emergency responders and policymakers predict spikes in overdoses, so they could muster an adequate supply of overdose reversal drugs and better allocate resources to the locations in most need of help.

“The mission of Origami Innovations is to focus on solutions that move the conversation from how the world ‘should be changed’ to how the world ‘can be changed,’” Erlendson said.

Erlendson and another Yale medical student, Kirthi Bellamkonda, founded Origami to empower students to use human-centered design to make meaningful, real-world impact in the lives ofothers.  Among their ambitious plans: a division that works with students, patients and researchers to design health care companies; a venture arm to help companies born within Origami access the funding they need to grow; and an innovation hub and startup studio in downtown New Haven  where students can get mentorship and funding for their ideas, projected to open in mid-2018.

Erlendson and Bellamkonda were excited to hear about the HHS Opioid code-a-thon because its mission to bring together a range of different stakeholders and community members to create life-saving solutions paralleled their own mission. The Origami team was struck by the decision by Bruce Greenstein, HHS’ Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. Mona Siddiqui, the agency’s Chief Data Officer, to bring human-centered design into a tech hackathon. This seemed like something new, something inspired—Origami, naturally, wanted to be a part of it.

They quickly pulled together a team, and were thrilled when their application was accepted. However, unlike many of their well-resourced competitors, the student-led Origami team relied on funding and general support from New Haven community stakeholder HealthVenture, a digital health foundry and venture fund.

Before the code-a-thon, team members spent a day participating in the Stanford Medicine X led Design-a-Thon, an interdisciplinary workshop that offered insight into the national opioid epidemic. They were joined by other Yale students, including Bellamkonda, Lina Vadlamani from the Yale School of Medicine , Valentine Quadrat from Yale’s School of Management , and Lan Duan from the Yale School of Public Health, as well as Alexandra Winter, an equine surgeon and data scientist.

Knowing the value of listening to build empathy and find solutions, the group paid close attention to the testimonies of Ashley Elliott, a recovering addict, and Joe Riffe, a chronic pain patient and responsible user of opioid pain medication who works as a first responder. Additionally, they spoke at length with a father, Bill Williams, who lost his son to addiction.

Williams was struck by the fact that the Origami team really seemed to hear what he was saying.

“The larger teams thought they had solutions,” he said. “But they weren’t focusing on ‘what questions should we be asking?’”

Several members of the Origami team had firsthand experience with opioid addiction’s toll. As a medical student, Erlendson held hands with patients going through the agony of withdrawal; he’d also lost a close relative to addiction.

In New Haven, where many of the team members are still in school, an overdose spike in June 2016 led to 12 people being rushed to the Yale-New Haven Hospital within a few hours. The hospital didn’t have enough of the overdose reversal drug, Narcan, to meet the spike in need. The city was also in short supply, and couldn’t get its hands on enough medication in time. Three patients died.

During the code-a-thon, over 70 datasets from federal, state and local agencies were made available for teams to use. Instead of taking a traditional top-down approach, the Origami team decided to use smaller community level data sets to find a ground-up solution. They focused on a specific problem: Narcan shortages during spikes in overdoses. By analyzing Connecticut data, they recognized that an increase in overdoses in one community was often followed by a similar increase in neighboring communities. Their concept: a tool enabling hospitals, first responders and policymakers to better allocate resources by using a real-time prediction model for opioid overdoses.

Dr. Larry Chu, Executive Director of Stanford Medicine X, helped organize the event and was one of the judges. He called the Origami team’s ability to listen to stakeholders like Williams “really ingenious.”

“Sometimes the best, most creative use of technology is not about applying a lot of resources,” Chu said. “It’s about how can you solve a problem when you don’t have a lot of resources?”

The Origami team is putting the prize money toward validating the model, acquiring more data sets, and continuing to build the application. They are meeting with Connecticut policymakers, emergency responders and hospitals to implement the new data tool. Eventually, the team hopes it can be used across the country.

“So many students have these brilliant minds waiting to contribute to tangible solutions,” Erlendson said. “It’s just about empowering them to take those first steps.”

Team OPAT: Attacking the opioid epidemic with data-driven solutions

OPAT team photo

Photo by Will Kim

This blog post was adapted from a blog post by the author.

Some problems are so huge that they demand the audacity, tenacity, and flexibility of small teams. Bruce Greenstein, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, brought this truth to the forefront last week when the Office of the CTO held the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon at HHS Headquarters in the heart of Washington, D.C. The event gathered more than 50 teams from around the country to develop innovative ways to combat the nation’s worsening opioid epidemic.

With Opioid Overdoses established as the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting test of teamwork, technology, and data.

Teams from multinational entities like IBM Watson competed alongside consulting firms, data startups, universities, and groups of passionate individuals who came together specifically for the event. Everyone shared the same goal: to protect and support Americans threatened by the opioid epidemic through innovative uses of data. The teams were split between tracks centered on prevention, treatment, and usage reduction. After coding through the night, the gauntlet was thrown down and teams were called on to pitch the fruits of their labor in presentations lasting less than 5 minutes.

In the end, our team won the Usage track. We did so in part by focusing on helping the people who control a patient’s first exposure to opioids.

Our Opioid Prescribing Awareness Tool (OPAT) focused on the challenges faced by the healthcare professionals who must make critical decisions in prescribing what proves for too many to be the ultimate “gateway drug.” We sought to borrow from the lessons of American Special Operations, converting CMS’s vast data sets into actionable intelligence and pushing that information down to those making decisions on the front lines. Our tool enables prescribers to see:

  • their prescribing behavior relative to that of others in their specialty, both in-state and nationally,
  • abnormally heavy opioid prescribers among the network of physicians to whom they refer patients,
  • clinics for multimodal pain management and addiction treatment in their area along with contact information, and
  • links to their state opioid registry to facilitate detection of “doctor shopping” behavior

…all of this information found for the roughly 4 seconds of effort required to type in their National Provider Identifier.

While I remain in awe of the brilliance of our Data Science & Development team, Jarrod Parker and Cameron Yick from New York data startup Enigma Technologies, no one could argue that the rest of the team was smarter than the competition. In fact, two members of our team didn’t write a single line of code. One didn’t even own a laptop. This may sound like a strange recipe for success at a CODE-a-thon, but it is consistent with the best of what I saw in US Special Operations serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Cronin’s decade of experience as an emergency room nurse and health system consultant gave us an edge in understanding the end user that cannot be quantified in lines of javascript. Rob Martin’s eye for detail and consummate managerial skills kept us on track through the low hours of the night and made sure the caffeination didn’t ebb. I tried to channel the circadian rhythm-busting tactics of my flying days and help keep our guys pulling in the same direction. Our team was weird, and that weirdness let us adapt to feedback and craft our solution around a critical pain point.

We are extremely grateful to HHS CTO Bruce Greenstein, HHS Chief Data Officer, Dr. Mona Siddiqui, and their entire team for putting together such a groundbreaking effort. We’d also like to thank track sponsors Alteryx and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for supporting the event and providing the prize money that will help fund the early stages of our tool’s development. We hope this event marks the first of many in which HHS and its partners reach out with data, diverse problem solvers, and decidedly nontraditional approaches to saving American lives.

For more information on the OPAT tool, please contact Alex Rich at

At Code-a-Thon, participants asked to develop solutions to combat the opioid epidemic

HHS Innovation Day is back!

We, at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, home of the HHS IDEA Lab, are proud to announce HHS Innovation Day, Innovation with Impact, on December 13 in the Hubert Humphrey Headquarters Building from 9 AM- 4 PM.

Why Should You Participate?

HHS Innovation Day is an opportunity for HHS staff and the public to learn about innovation activities and new ideas across HHS, the federal government and the health innovation community that will generate change. HHS Innovation Day will showcase innovation programs like HHS’ Ignite Accelerator, highlight innovation and emerging technology approaches at the White House, and stimulate new ideas from outside experts. This is your opportunity to get immersed in entrepreneurial approaches and innovative strategies across HHS and other sectors.

The day will feature speakers from across the innovation spectrum including;

  • Matt Lira, Special Assistant to the President, Office of American Innovation, The White House
  • Michael Kratsios, Deputy Chief Technology Officer, The White House
  • Rasu Shrestha, Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)
  • Joshua Marcuse, Executive Director for The Defense Innovation Board at the U.S. Department of Defense
  • Dean Chang, Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland (UMD).

Attend the event in person or participate via livestream.

We are particularly proud to enable employee-led project teams through HHS Ignite. These teams validate demand for their new or novel solution by asking two key questions before launching their projects – if I build it will they come, and if I build it will it have impact? Simply, they discover the problem that their solving and build a hypothesis for a solution through the machinery of customer discovery, customer segmentation, value proposition design, and iterative lean startup methods.

Moreover, these teams perform customer discovery, in which they empathize with the needs of their customers, create prototypes for their notional solutions, and then create a working prototype to test if their solution is usable. This process allows for nimble and agile project development that builds an ideal solution for customers.

In addition to hearing about the HHS Ignite Projects, attendees will learn about the broad array of services that the HHS IDEA Lab provides, including open innovation and the Entrepreneurs in Residence program during a panel discussion with HHS employees that have worked with the HHS IDEA Lab and used the methods that are practiced during the HHS Ignite program.

Jessie Buerlin, Public Health Analyst at the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) will share how HRSA used open innovation to launch its Word Gap Challenge. By age three, children from low-income families heave heard 30 million fewer words than those from higher-income families, leading to delayed language skills and decreased school performance.  The HRSA Word Gap challenge accelerates innovative approaches to see how technology, like wearables and location based apps , can be used to improve early childhood learning.

Additionally, Bruce Sundstrom, Ph.D., Scientific Review Officer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will showcase how he prototyped and then scaled an innovative approach to scientific grant reviews at the NIH. .

You can attend the event in person or participate via livestream.